HMS Discovery (1789)

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Career (UK) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HMS Discovery
Builder: Randall and Brents, Rotherhithe
Launched: 1789
Acquired: November 1789
In service: 7 December 1789
Reclassified: Bomb vessel in 1799
Convict hulk between 1808-1812
Army hospital ship between 1812-1815
Convict ship between 1820-1834
Honours and

Participated in:

Fate: Broken up by 15 February 1834
General characteristics
Class and type: 10-gun sloop-rigged survey ship
Tons burthen: 330 bm
Length: 99 ft 2 in (30.23 m) (overall)
77 ft 8 in (23.67 m) (keel)
Beam: 28 ft 3.25 in (8.6170 m)
Depth of hold: 12 ft 4 in (3.76 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Sloop
Complement: 100 (later 94)
  • 10 x 4pdrs (short)
  • 10 x ½pdr swivels

HMS Discovery was a Royal Navy ship best known as the lead ship in George Vancouver's exploration of the west coast of North America in his 1791-1795 expedition.

Discovery was built at the Randall & Brents shipyard in London in 1789. Originally intended for a round-the-world voyage focusing on the South Seas whaling grounds[1], she was named after the previous HMS Discovery, one of the ships on James Cook's third voyage to the Pacific Ocean, on which Vancouver had served as a midshipman. She was ship-rigged, of 330 tons burthen, and had a standard complement of 100, including a widow's man.[2]

The Voyage

(See also: Vancouver Expedition)

Discovery was built for a voyage of exploration to the Southern whale fisheries. Her Captain was Henry Roberts and Vancouver his 1st Lieutenant.

However, the Nootka Crisis led Roberts and Vancouver to be posted elsewhere. Discovery was used as a depot ship for processing victims of the press gang. When the Nootka Sound Convention ended the crisis, Vancouver was given command of Discovery and ordered to take possession of Nootka Sound, and related exploratory tasks.

In 1791, Discovery set out in company with HMS Chatham. They stopped at Cape Town, and then explored the south coast of Australia. In King George Sound, her naturalist and surgeon Archibald Menzies collected various plant species including the Banksia grandis the first recording of the Banksia genus in Western Australia.[3]. Proceeding to Hawai'i, Discovery helping impress Kamehameha I with the reach of British power; in 1795 Kamehameha allied himself to Britain, according to Vancouver's report, although there is some dispute whether Kamehameha's side of the story would be the same.

Over the course of the next four years, Vancouver surveyed the northern Pacific Ocean coast in Discovery and wintered in Spanish California and Hawai'i. Vancouver named many features after friends and associates, including:

Discovery's primary mission was to assert British control of the Northwest Coast, with the hand-over of the Spanish Fort San Miguel at Nootka Sound; exploration in co-operation with the Spanish as an important secondary objective. The explorations were successful and relations with the Spanish went well; resupply in California were especially helpful. Vancouver and the overall Spanish commander Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra were on the most friendly terms until the latter's untimely death. Indeed, they initially gave the name Vancouver and Quadra's Island to what is today known as Vancouver Island.

File:The Discovery on the rocks.jpg
The Discovery ran aground in early August 1792 on hidden rocks in Queen Charlotte Strait near Fife Sound. Within a day the Chatham also ran aground on rocks about two miles away.

However, Vancouver and Quadra had conflicting instructions about the disposition of Nootka Sound. Four years of dispatches with their home governments failed to bring a resolution, so in a purely formal sense, Discovery's mission failed. However, that mission is scarcely notable today and is greatly eclipsed by its successes.

In her voyage back to NW America in 1793, Discovery entered a harbor on the northern end of the island Vancouver named Prince of Wales. A storm arose. Vancouver took shelter in a commodious bay he named Port Protection. He named the northwest point of the island after his first mate, Joesph Baker.

It is remarkable that during Discovery's five-year voyage she lost only six sailors, all in accidents; none died from scurvy or violence.


Discovery suffered severe wear on her long voyage, returning to England in 1795 seriously in need of a refit, but with her home country more in need of war vessels than of exploration ships. In 1799, she was converted to a bomb vessel. She took part in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 under Commander John Conn.

On 4 August, she was serving with Nelson when he resolved to attack an enemy flotilla off Boulogne using bombs. On the night of the 15th, the British attacked in four divisions, with Conn in charge of four boats armed with howitzers. Discovery had one man wounded in the unsuccessful British attack.

File:Discovery at Deptford.jpg
Discovery as a prison ship at Deptford

In 1807 Discovery was at Sheerness, serving as a hospital ship. In 1818 Discovery was converted to a convict ship. In 1824 she moved to Deptford. She was broken up there in 1834.

Notable crew and passengers

Among the notable persons who served on Discovery's great voyage:


  1. Naish, John (1996). The Interwoven Lives of George Vancouver, Archibald Menzies, Joseph Whidbey and Peter Puget: The Vancouver Voyage of 1791-1795. The Edward Mellen Press, Ltd.. ISBN 0-7734-8857-X. 
  2. "Muster Table of His Majesties Sloop The Discovery". Admiralty Records in the Public Record Office, U.K.. 1791. Retrieved 15 December 2006. 
  3. For People & Plants Quarterly journal Issue 55 published by Friends of Kings Park
  4. Wing, Robert and Newell, Gordon (1979). Peter Puget: Lieutenant on the Vancouver Expedition, fighting British naval officer, the man for whom Puget Sound was named. Gray Beard Publishing. ISBN 0-933686-00-5. 

External links

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